10 Smart Thermostat Features You Should Be Using

Ecobee

Upgrading to a smart thermostat is great, but if you don’t use all the features, you’re leaving a ton of benefits on the table. Make sure you’re taking full advantage of these smart thermostat perks.

Your Thermostat Can’t Do Everything Automatically

Lots of folks get a smart thermostat because they were offered one as part of an energy rebate from their utility company or, in newer homes with more advanced HVAC systems, it just came with the house or apartment.

If you didn’t go out of your way to research everything there is to know about smart thermostats and your particular model, you’ve likely overlooked a feature or three. (And honestly, there are so many features on smart thermostats even if you did your homework, you probably missed a few!)

In addition to reading through our list of features here, now is a perfect time to check what smart thermostat you have and read through the manual or online help files. That will help you identify all the features and learn how to use them.

Increasingly, many of these great features just happen auto-magically in the background once you’ve installed your thermostat, but many of them require you to either opt-in, toggle a setting, or otherwise enable the feature to realize the full benefits. Don’t assume that a feature is on by default just because it’s advertised as available on your particular smart thermostat.

Use Smart Scheduling

There are two big ways smart thermostats make setting a schedule easier. First and foremost, if you want to manually set a schedule (or multiple schedules!) it’s so much easier to do so with the app or web interface than it used to be with clunky old programmable thermostats.

I have more than a few unpleasant memories of hunching over an old-fashioned programmable thermostat clicking on little buttons to set a program. With the app, it’s trivial to set a schedule and trivial to change the schedule if the need arises.

Better yet, many smart thermostats have smart scheduling functions where they adapt over time to the patterns of your household. Without lifting a finger, your thermostat can learn your work and recreation schedule, adapting accordingly.

Do keep reading, however, because there are a variety of ways you can make your smart thermostat smarter and, in the process, the smart scheduling feature better.

Enable Smart Home Integration

We’re slowly moving towards a future where all the different smart devices and sensors in our homes work together in a useful manner. In order to take advantage of the best aspects of your smart thermostat, you need to install the app, set up any necessary accounts, and link your thermostat to your smart home.

Doing so opens up a world of possibilities from the simple—like controlling your thermostat from a smart display in your kitchen—to the more advanced—like integrating your smart thermostat into more complex routines with IFTTT routines.

And, with the rollout of the Matter smart home standard just around the corner, the smart thermostat will play an even bigger role in the emerging ecosystem-of-sensors smart home.

Take Advantage of Away Mode

A Nest thermostat in auto-away mode.
Google

The away mode is closely related to the smart scheduling function. One of the downsides of set schedules and old-fashioned programmable thermostats is that, while they were an improvement over never adjusting the thermostat, they weren’t adaptive.

Smart thermostats offer an adaptive system where the home is heated and cooled not based on a schedule or a manual setting, but based on physical presence in the home.

It might not seem like a big deal, but let’s take a simple example. Let’s say, with an old programmable thermostat, you set the temperatures for Saturday and Sunday to be very comfortable in the middle of the day because you anticipate being home on the weekend.

Would you remember to go fiddle with the thermostat every time you end up going somewhere on a Saturday afternoon? Probably not. But with occupancy sensing, your smart thermostat can automatically adjust the system when it detects the home is empty. No input on your behalf is necessary.

Thermostats that support this function typically have a motion sensor built into the front of the thermostat. Others will have that, plus smart sensors for better coverage of the home (more on that in a moment). There is also usually the option to use geofencing with your smartphone—the smart thermostat will use the presence of your phone to determine if the home is occupied or not.

Use Smart Fan Circulation and Humidity Adjustments

What the features are called varies from brand to brand, but the majority of smart thermostats have a pile of efficiency and comfort functions related to optimizing airflow and humidifying (or dehumidifying) your living space.

Look through the settings for options that run the fan for a period of time after every heating or cooling cycle to help circulate air and even out the temperature in your home.

There are also usually options to hit target dehumidification goals in the summer and humidification goals in the winter to keep your living space comfortable.

Don’t Forget Smart Sensors

Smart sensors aren’t a replacement for an actual multi-zone HVAC system, but they offer enough benefits that it’s worth looking into the smart sensor options for your particular thermostat.

Some sensors function as (and are directly marketed as) temperature and humidity sensors you add on to extend the reach of your thermostat. Several of the Ecobee smart thermostats ship with an additional sensor, and you can pick up extras to expand the system.

The Ecobee SmartSensors not only monitor the conditions of the room—which is handy if you want to make sure a particular room, like the baby’s nursery, stay comfortable—but also the occupancy of the home for smart home and away modes.

In other instances, the sensors are more limited but still useful. If you have a Nest thermostat, for example, every Nest smoke detector in your home also does double-duty as an occupancy sensor. If your thermostat is in a lesser-used room it’s incredibly useful to have a sensor somewhere else that gives a more accurate insight into whether or not anybody is home.

In my home, for example, the thermostat is on the wall of the living room and the living room simply isn’t part of the regular flow of traffic. But there’s a sensor near the stairs, a heavily trafficked area, which ensures the away/home state of the thermostat is much more accurate.

Turn On “Feels Like” Temperature Optimization

You might have noticed your favorite weather app or local news station using terms like “Feels Like” or “Real Feel” when describing weather conditions. Those “Feels Like” temperature readings use variables like the actual temperature, the humidity, the wind speed, and the dew point to give you an approximation of what the weather outside actually feels like instead of just the raw temperature reading.

Some smart thermostats have a similar feature, but it works, more or less, in reverse. With the thermostat function you tell it what you want the “Feels Like” to be and it works to adjust the internal temperature and humidity of your home to match your expectation. That way, you get the feeling of 72°F on a pleasant fall day instead of 72°F on a muggy summer day.

Enable Time of Use Power Saving

There are several different approaches to “time of use” power-saving models available with smart thermostats.

Some thermostats, like those in the Ecobee line, offer user-controlled time-of-use saving plans. You can enable a setting that will instruct your smart thermostat to work around the peak energy demands in your location.

For example, your thermostat might supercool your home at night to avoid running the AC when energy costs are at their peak in the middle of the day.

Other thermostats, Ecobee models included, can link to your local utility company for automatic time of use adjustments and even some savings. Many utility companies offer discounted rates or even cash-back rewards for these programs, so that’s worth looking into.

Check Out Energy and Usage Reports

An example of the kind of feedback you can get in smart thermostat reports.
Ecobee

Historically, it was really difficult to track data and statistics about your HVAC system and energy usage. Old thermostats either lacked any tracking metrics at all or, if they had them, you would need to go to the thermostat and poke through menus on a little LCD display to get some basic information of limited utility.

Smart thermostats, however, offer much more sophisticated feedback. Not only do they learn and adapt quietly in the background—you can also look at reports to see if your usage is going up or down. You can also more easily correlate that data with any changes you’ve made around your home.

For example, if you put insulated blackout curtains up or purchased new windows, you can compare energy usage between two periods of the same season or even the past season to the present season with ease.

And the reports usually do some basic analysis for you, like displaying the outside temperature and conditions against your energy usage to help you determine if the reason you ran the AC so hard that week was that it was unusually hot or because there’s some issue you need to investigate.

Use Reminders and Alerts

Speaking of issues to investigate, smart thermostats are so much better at helping you identify problems than older models ever were.

For example, if you have a Nest thermostat or a thermostat with similar functionality, it will monitor outcomes and alert you if unexpected things happen. If the thermostat is calling on the AC and running it for X hours per day, for instance, and the temperature of the home is not changing as expected, you’ll get a notice that something is wrong.

Maybe the problem is easily remediated (like your kids left a bunch of windows open,) or maybe it’s more serious (like the coolant line has a leak.)

You can also set up high and low-temperature alerts, humidity alerts, and even maintenance alerts and reminders. You might as well lean in hard on the whole “better living through technology” aspect of having a smart thermostat and use these features.

Enable Dealer Service Alerts

While general warnings and alerts are great (and will work regardless of what kind of furnace or AC you have), there is an even more advanced feature you can take advantage of if your smart thermostat supports it.

Some thermostats support dealer integration, wherein you can link your thermostat to the company that services your HVAC system. In this case, in addition to giving you a notice that something is wrong with your HVAC system, the system can also automatically forward the error report or warning to your dealer.

Rather than you having to figure out what the error means or schedule a call out to have a technician look at it in person, they can check things remotely and come better prepared to fix the problem. Even better, they can proactively alert you if a series of errors or issues appears to be foreshadowing a much bigger problem. A small repair or replacement now sure beats $1500 on a much bigger repair later.

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